A Crowded Family Tree

Once upon a time, a child in a typical family had two sets of grandparents: a maternal and paternal pair, four grandparents who could lavish attention, tell stories about the old days, provide babysitting duties and dole out extra cookies and ice cream when mom and dad weren’t looking. Through the decades, adult grandchildren were there to assist their aging grandparents, offering help and hands, reversing roles and becoming the new caretakers.

But an explosion in the divorce rate in the 1970s, coupled with a rise in domestic partnerships across the age spectrum, created more blended families that have shattered the traditional unit. Ripple effects have continued to alter family connections and interactions, especially for the 70 million grandparents who now live in the U.S.

Some changes are for the better, others not as much.

“Picture a family tree of a child who had parents that divorced and remarried — it’s possible that a child could have eight grandparents, and even those grandparents could divorce and remarry and then that number is exponentially increased as well,” says Caroline Cicero, an associate professor of gerontology at USC. “[Multiple grandparents are] changing the dynamics of families because there are many factors. Issues also come up even when couples are not married, especially domestic partnerships in older age; these relationships can affect numerous family members in so many ways.”

A family with numerous grandparents can be “a wonderful advantage or a nightmare,” says Christine Crosby, editor of Grand Magazine, a national publication focused on grandparent issues. When families are young, multiple grandparents mean more eyes to watch and positively influence the grandchildren — which can help overworked and exhausted parents. What could go wrong?

Well, there’s a natural friction that arises between grandparents, says Crosby, adding that it’s common even among grandparent couples who get along with each other and are all engaged with kids and grandkids. “I think it comes to down to jealousy and an underlying sense of competition,” she explains. Who gets to buy the First Communion dress? Why did they get to set up the college fund first? Why are they going there for the holidays? Look at them showing off with that expensive gift!

The solution is communication, and while it should originate from the parents, it often doesn’t because parents are overwhelmed or unaware of a potential powder keg. “It behooves one set of grandparents to get to know the other set of grandparents and the third or fourth set,” says Crosby. “I think it’s up to all the grandparents to realize how critically important this is, and how smart it would be to collaborate with one another.”

Crosby tells a story about how her son-in-law’s family kept jealousy in check. “Recently I received two beautiful books of our grandchildren that the grandmother put together not only for Mom and Dad, but she sent copies to me,” she says. “She wrote a note thanking me for the opportunity to share these beautiful grandchildren with her. It’s thoughtful, inclusive; it’s all the right things you want to do.”

But there can be a dark side, especially when it comes to nasty divorces; a parent may
consider an ex’s parents — the grandparents — off-limits, even if they proved to be a positive force in the past. “Those grandparents get the shaft and it can be a very sad thing,” says Crosby.

Indeed, being cut off from grandchildren can be emotionally devastating for seniors. Created in 2011, the nonprofit Alienated Grandparents Anonymous (AGA) reaches out with expert advice and support to grandparents worldwide who have experienced unhealthy behaviors, unrealistic expectations and high emotions that have destroyed or critically damaged relationships with their own adult children and grandchildren. Today, there are 129 support groups (including some in California) throughout 22 countries. During a national conference call each month, grandparents ask questions, tell their stories and help each other navigate the choppy waters of family dynamics.

“Grandparent alienation is all about power and control,” explains the founder, who asked for anonymity. AGA’s mission is to harness the help of professional experts in psychological alienation and offer strategies for rebuilding and healing relationships marred by rage, fear, jealousy and even betrayal from close family members. The founder tells of grandparents heartbroken from being denied access to their grandchildren, especially poignant after an adult child passes away either from an illness, unexpected death or even murder. “Even if you raised a healthy child, it can be who they marry that can be an issue,” she says. After all, when your child marries, “they marry into the dynamics of that other household.” Toxic daughters-in-law, for example, can bring jealousy and insecurities into the marriage by manipulating situations to reduce the influence of grandparents.

In support groups or on AGA conference calls, seniors usually listen quietly at first. But after hearing inspiring stories of others who’ve closed the gap, many become active participants, learning skills to navigate situations for better outcomes. “We encourage them to periodically send a message of love to their adult child, just one or two sentences, and then tell them something about what they are currently doing to get maybe a response,” says the founder, adding that these messages can be sent via text, voicemail, email, postcards or letters. “These messages can be strong, simple reminders.”

Another strategy for grandparents who have been completely cut off is this: Create a memory box filled with photos, stories, pictures of presents sent to the grandchildren (gifts that often are intercepted and not delivered) and other date-related mementos. These boxes have proven powerful, the founder says, citing the experience of a 17-year-old who angrily confronted his grandparents at their house, demanding to know why they “gave up on him as a child.” The grandparents calmly presented the box, and as they went through the materials inside together, the boy broke down, realizing he hadn’t been abandoned.

Young parents today often have higher standards on what kind of influences they want for their children, says Joel Coleman, a San Francisco–based psychologist and senior fellow at the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. “They demand certain levels of involvement and grandparents often can feel criticized and think that their values are being shunned,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for hurt feelings and misunderstandings.”

Alternatively, Coleman says that today’s seniors have a more active lifestyle than previous generations — and another source of tension can be adult children demanding their parents be “more involved with their grandchildren than the grandparents have the time or energy or resources to do.” Arguments can heat up (Don’t you care about your grandkids?) that can lead to threats (Well, maybe you don’t get to see your grandkids), which could set everyone back to square one.

With more people bonded in family relations — such as multiple grandparents — there needs to be a “lot of maturity and good psychological health for everyone involved,” says Coleman. “Learn how to communicate in a clear, low-key, non-
confrontational way and make sure there is clarity about expectations and sensitivity. Keep criticisms to a minimum.”

Healthy connections among adult children, grandchildren and grandparents can be a life-changing experience for everyone. According to the American Grandparents Association, 72 percent of grandparents say that being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying aspect of their lives. “If grandparents are involved in the lives of their grandchildren, they feel younger and have a renewed sense of purpose,” explains Annette Ermshar, a Pasadena-based psychologist, adding that research has also shown that if grandparents have emotionally close ties to their grandchildren, they have less depression. Hanging around grandkids on a daily basis keeps “grandparents mentally sharp,” she adds. “Studies have shown that grandmothers perform better at cognitive tests if they have regular contact with their grandchildren.”

Grandparents can also feel more comfortable in the modern world when they use technology to stay connected to their grandchildren. “Even simple texting is cognitively stimulating to them,” says Ermshar. If it wasn’t for grandkids, grandparents might not be exposed to social media, Skype and other contemporary communications.

Likewise, grandchildren can have renewed respect and a sense of security when their relationships with grandparents are strong — no matter how many sets of grandparents they have. Says Ermshar: “There is life wisdom and experience along with firsthand historical perspectives that can enrich their grandchildren’s lives and give them a better understanding of the past.”  

The Legacy of Nelbert Chouinard

The name Chouinard has a special place in the cultural history of Los Angeles, and that is because of Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, a dedicated arts educator who in 1921 founded one of the city’s earliest and most respected art academies, the Chouinard Art Institute. Its prominent alumni include such artists as Don Bachardy, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha; animators Mary Blair and Chuck Jones and costume designers Edith Head and Bob Mackie. The school hasn’t existed as a separate entity since the late 1960s, when it was absorbed into California Institute of the Arts under the guidance of Roy Disney, executing a plan approved by his late brother Walt.

As a young woman, Nelbert (1879-1969) herself had received art training and had at least one gallery show in the Pasadena area, where she lived most of her adult life. Yet few have seen the art she made. Recently, her extended family generously gave the Pasadena Museum of History five of her artworks — three landscape paintings and two preparatory sketches — along with personal effects including old photographs, dresses and her diploma from The Pratt Institute in New York. The paintings are typical of early 1900s California landscapes; one, for example, showing a tall, stately eucalyptus towering over a cluster of plants on a gentle slope, all framed against the background of clear blue sky.

“We’re very excited to get this gift,” says Jeannette O’Malley, executive director of the museum. “It’s especially important because Nelbert was an influential educator. Many people have no idea she had roots in Pasadena.” Currently, the works are part of the exhibition California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960 curated by Maurine St. Gaudens and Joseph Morsman. The show has been extended to April 13.

Chouinard was born Nelbertina (or Nelibertina, the family’s not certain) Murphy to Ruth Helen Lawrence Murphy and Dr. Francis Lea Murphy on Feb. 9, 1879, in Montevideo, Minnesota. When she was very young, her older brother, Lloyd, shortened her name, and it stuck. “She was always Nelbert,” recalls Karen Laurence, Lloyd’s granddaughter and Nelbert’s grandniece, who now lives in New York. Her parents had met at Chouinard, and she also attended the school as a child. “Aunt Nelbert was what we were supposed to call her back in the day.”

In the early 1900s, Nelbert’s parents sent her off to New York to study at the Pratt Institute — apparently, according to Laurence, to prevent… what they regarded as an unfortunate marriage to a local Episcopalian minister, Horace Albert “Bert” Chouinard. In 1904 Nelbert received a diploma for a “Normal Art and Manual Training course of two years” from Pratt; that diploma is part of the gift to the museum.

When Dr. Murphy retired, he and his wife moved to the bucolic little town of South Pasadena, settling in a house on Garfield Avenue. In 1909 Nelbert also moved west, to a house at 917 San Pasqual St., Pasadena, which was very convenient since she taught studio art at the nearby Throop Polytechnic Institute (later the California Institute of Technology).

Nelbert was also painting in her studio and had at least one show at a Pasadena gallery, in 1916. At some point, and here the story is murky, she remet Chouinard, by then a retired U. S. Army chaplain living in El Paso, Texas. He married Nelbert in 1916 but, sadly, fell ill and died only two years later.

Nelbert returned to California to live with her parents and teach at the newly opened Otis Art Institute, then the largest art school west of Chicago. With Otis getting very crowded by 1921, the 42-year-old artist decided to open her own school, the Chouinard Art Institute, in a rented two-story house on 8th Street near downtown L.A. Assisting her were Frank Tolles Chamberlin, a painter and sculptor, and Donald Graham, a recent Stanford University graduate. In 1929 she managed to move the school into its own building, designed by the firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements, at 743 S. Grand View St., near MacArthur Park.

Her San Pasqual house is no more, but the Garfield Avenue house still stands, though it’s hard to see from the street. “My mother remembered the originally much smaller house sitting on two and a half acres of land surrounded by empty fields,” recalls Laurence. After World War II, Laurence’s family moved to the area when Nelbert offered her artist/animator father, Harry O. Diamond, the job of directing “The School,” as the family called the art academy. “My mother desperately wanted to go home to California, so Nelbert’s offer to run Chouinard seemed ideal,” Laurence recalls. “But by the time my parents had pulled up stakes, packed up the family and arrived back in Los Angeles, Nelbert, as she often did, rescinded the offer.” The strong-willed woman had second thoughts about sharing control. But Diamond ultimately taught there, on and off, for 18 years. During that time Laurence and her family paid regular visits to Aunt Nelbert. “She was beloved by our family,” she says. “I would describe her as fearless, passionate and completely committed to the importance of art education.”

Nelbert firmly believed in teaching students the three basics: drawing, color and design — with drawing the most important.  She managed to attract highly talented teachers such as Don Graham, who taught drawing to Walt Disney’s animators. “Don was a very educated guy, and in his classes we learned art history along with drawing,” says Laurence. In the 1950s the school became accredited and added academic courses to its raft of studio classes.

Despite its success, the school was running on a shoestring. With Nelbert’s declining health and the school’s diminishing financial resources, the Chouinard board sought out Walt Disney’s help. Nelbert herself passed away in 1969 at age 90, and the last class to graduate from Chouinard was in 1972. Some graduates went on to art-related careers, others did something completely different, but many came away with fond memories of their days at Chouinard. “She wanted to show people the possibilities,” Laurence says. “And she would say this to anyone: ‘No matter what you do later in life, you will all be the better for having studied art.’” 

Chouinard’s artwork can be viewed in California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960, which runs through April 13 at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Exhibition hours are noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission costs $9; members and children under 12 are admitted free. Call (626) 577-1660 or visit pasadenahistory.org.

The Bambino, Bats and Snacks

There is nothing I look forward to more than baseball season.

Well… that’s not true at all. I look forward to a lot of things more than that — payday, kids coming home for a visit, Jeopardy at 7 p.m. — but I do really enjoy baseball. If you read this column regularly, you already know this, as I have written about it at least a hundred times.

Baseball is the one sport I really enjoy watching, live or on TV. For one thing, you can multitask and not miss a thing. Many wrong people consider baseball boring, and I get it. There’s no blood, no concussions, no brawling (usually) and no spectacular half-time show. There is, however, skill and strategy, and statistics, and rivalry, and seemingly endless anticipation.

For me, it’s the anticipation that I love. Anticipation for the season, for each time at bat, for the playoffs — the entire game is one long sequence of high hopes. And to be honest, for me the anticipation of everything is always better than the actual thing. The excitement of upcoming holidays, dessert, even weekends, is always better. Once they start, they’re almost over, and that’s just a bummer. Baseball season, thankfully, will last over half a year, which means the depression won’t set in until November — which is good news for the rest of my team. 

So you can imagine my excitement, when, while perusing this month’s National Day Calendar (yes, I am still doing that), there were a couple of baseball-centric days. First and foremost is National Babe Ruth Day on April 27. To celebrate I plan to watch The Babe Ruth Story from 1948. (Not 1992’s The Babe, which received two thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert.) William Bendix plays the Sultan of Swat in all his child-curing, dog-rescuing glory. I will probably also watch the overly schmaltzy biopic Pride of the Yankees because, although it’s not National Lou Gehrig Day, Gary Cooper is fun to look at, and the real Babe Ruth plays himself, as do a handful of other real Yankees. (Gehrig doesn’t have a National Day, although Major League Baseball does celebrate Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4 — as if we had nothing else to do that day.)

And because April 6 is National Caramel Popcorn Day, I will watch The Babe Ruth Story while snacking on my very own secret recipe for homemade Cracker Jack. The song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is responsible for my enduring love of this snack. It was written in 1908 by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, two Tin Pan Alley composers looking for a hit. They got the idea from a poster on the subway advertising a baseball game at the Polo Grounds, then the Upper Manhattan home of the early Mets and Yankees. The duo had never been to a game, but that didn’t stop them. The song hit it big in vaudeville but wasn’t heard in the Major League until the 1934 World Series. Norworth didn’t make it to a game until 1940, when he was honored at Ebbets Field by the … wait for it … Dodgers!

I was also very excited to see that April 17 is National Bat Appreciation Day. Except it turned out to be about flying rats (bat aficionados probably won’t appreciate that I called them that) and not about the Louisville Slugger (MLB’s official bat, incidentally, was created in 1884 by Bud Hillerich, whose prototype pulled the Louisville Eclipse star Pete Browning out of a slump). 

Play ball! ||||

A Lasting Legacy

When Lucille Rader died in 2015 at age 92, she left a large portion of her estate to an eponymous foundation she’d created in 2000 to fund college scholarships for girls.

The Lucille Rader Education Foundation Scholarship Program was founded in memory of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who devoted their lives to excellence in teaching. Rader, a former nun who left the religious order and married, taught at Immaculate Heart High School for girls in Hollywood and other schools. Scholarship candidates must be senior Catholic high school girls in good academic standing, with “good moral character” who have participated in team sports. The values that informed Rader’s life — Catholicism, education and team sports — moved her to create a lasting legacy with the wealth she and her husband had amassed in life.

“She left almost everything to the foundation when she passed away,” said Timur Berberoglu, a Santa Monica–based attorney and partner in Deering, Sands & Berberoglu who specializes in trusts, estate planning and litigation. “She created it while she was alive, and one of the board members was one of her former students. We had to get a conservatorship for her. When she died, we were able to sell her house in Pacific Palisades and put the funds into the scholarship.”

Making plans for what happens to one’s estate, or whatever is left over at the end of life, falls to the bottom of the to-do list for many of us. For some reason, it is a dreaded task. Even Aretha Franklin, who died last August with an estate reportedly valued at $80 million, never got to it. She died with no will. And she is hardly alone.

About 60 percent of adult Americans have no will or last testament, according AARP.org. That’s not surprising since it means pondering your own death. It requires planning. Gathering documents. Tedious record-keeping. But the alternative — your hard-earned savings going to probate court, where it goes before a judge who distributes it if there is no will — is a time-consuming process that can be even more dreadful. In order to control where your assets and funds go when you’re gone, you must put your desires in a will. Creating a legacy is a way to dedicate hard-won funds to a principle, value or mission that has lasting meaning, value and significance.

“My view of legacy is that you actually design legacy every day and it is a reflection of your values and who you are,” said Patrick Renn, a certified financial planner based in Atlanta and author of Finding Your Money’s Greater Purpose: How to Make your Legacy Count (Advantage; 2015). “Once you get past the stage of, do I have enough money and will it run out, then the question is, now what?”

If there are children, to what extent do you provide for them in your estate plan? That can be complicated, although most parents want to leave everything to their children, according to estate planners and financial planners interviewed for this story. But there are a number of parents who don’t want to give their children so much that they miss out on the gratification and sweat rewards of earning their own way in the world.

Similarly, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom have pledged to give half of their estates to charity, have said they want their children to work for what they have. But some context is in order here: Gates and wife Melinda are reportedly giving $10 million to each of their three children (a paltry sum compared to their total wealth, but to most of us unimaginable riches), and Buffett is said to have funded a $2 billion foundation for each of his three children. Sting, however, has said that his six children won’t receive most of his fortune, reportedly calling it “albatrosses round their necks.”

Plenty of people feel the same way about money spoiling their children’s ambition, drive and values, according to  Pasadena attorney Ali Smyser, a certified specialist in estate planning, trust and probate law. “I do have a number of clients who are either self-made and they want to make sure their kids have a work ethic, or they have an experience with a peer who had a trust fund coming so did not do much,” said Smyser, a senior associate in the Donald P. Schweitzer law firm. “Or they just want their children to work for what they receive.”

People who do want to leave everything to their children can accomplish that in a number of ways, and Renn said that parents should look at each child individually and not necessarily give each child an equal share. For example, a well-to-do child who is a doctor should not receive the same inheritance as a child who is a divorced teacher with a special-needs child. Some children don’t need any help. Some parents decide to leave college funds in trusts for their grandchildren, but very little for their affluent children. Once people decide on what to do about their children and grandchildren or extended relatives, then charities and legacies can be considered.

Some clients have what Smyser calls a “philanthropic heart,” and she encourages them to carve out a legacy and use their estate planning to make their lives and legacies more significant. She said that in these tumultuous political times where civil rights have been under siege, she has clients who changed their wills to include funds to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. “I make my clients aware of the possibility that if they would like to make a charitable gift, that now is the time,” she said. “Do they go to church, do they make regular gifts to a hospital or an animal rescue? Then I facilitate it.”

One client who inherited considerable funds from her parents and has no children set up a family foundation, Smyser said. Her parents then donated $1 million to the family foundation. She set up her own estate so that one third of it will go to fund the family foundation, which is dedicated to helping women and girls impacted by poverty and human trafficking. The Pasadena Community Foundation (PasadenaCF.org) helps many families establish and manage their charitable endowments.

But before anyone can consider creating a legacy or family foundation, Renn, the financial planner, said people have to figure out whether or not they have enough money to see them through to the end of their expected lifespan. After that, if  there are enough funds left after parents’ bequests to children or grandchildren, the balance can support a legacy inspired by values, principles and betterment of others.

“Typically, our clients are first-generation wealth, folks that did not come from well-heeled families, and they have some mileage on them,” he said. “They care about their church or school or hospital, or they feel some tie and they want to make life better for others.” The desire to improve things in their community is part of their DNA, he said.

One of Renn’s clients who’d never married and worked all her life was introduced by her parents’ friend to volunteering at the Salvation Army, a Christian human services nonprofit. When she died, she left everything to the Salvation Army — more than $1 million. “She had enough to live on, and she decided that other than a few requests from cousins and a couple of friends, she would leave everything to the Salvation Army,” he said. “She was a nice little lady, very self-sufficient and lived in a home by herself.”

Once an estate plan is drawn up or a will written, the task isn’t necessarily complete. It needs to be revisited again and again -— refreshed, if you will. That is because over time, elements in estate plans and wills change: Children grow up and guardians are no longer relevant. Money set-asides for the inheritance of a child who may now be an adult with a drug, alcohol or gambling problem, may warrant a change. Ongoing legacy donations can be impacted by tax law changes. And every two years, when Congress convenes, laws change. Many financial planners, some estate-plan attorneys and certified public accountants will calculate the impact of new tax laws on tax returns and estate taxes. So you’ll probably have to update your will and estate plan.

“We don’t want any surprises,” said Renn. “We hate surprises.” 

Managing the Elder Explosion

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that the country’s senior population is booming. By 2030, the number of American elders is expected to outnumber the population of children for the first time, according to U.S. Census projections. Here in the L.A. area, between 2010 and 2030, the population of people over 60 is expected to double, from 1.8 million to a whopping 3.6 million.

Is metro L.A. ready for the elder explosion? How residents in a vast county that encompasses 88 cities and 140 unincorporated areas be served most effectively?  How do you effectively connect with a economically and culturally diverse region that speaks in 200 languages?  What’s the best way to reimagine the region as a place where everyone wants to stay and grow comfortably old with adequate support? Can L.A. adult?

Currently, L.A. County and city are participating in a three-year action plan to tackle some of the biggest issues facing seniors who want to live out their golden years in the Golden State. The roots stretch back to 2008, when L.A. County Supervisors created a Seamless Senior Service task force to explore how to best integrate services. In 2016, the county shifted into higher gear and instructed the Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services (WDACS) to collaborate across 20 departments on the Purposeful Aging Los Angeles initiative (PALA), with the goal of targeting specific ways to make the L.A. region more senior-friendly. County staffers also reached out to coordinate their efforts with the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging.

The goal is to “improve not just the lives of older adults, but Angelenos of all ages,” says Joel Diaz, public information officer for WDACS. “Everyone is aging. We don’t want people to move out of the Los Angeles area, but stay here happily and engage with their community and families.”

An extensive research phase took place in 2017; WDACS launched a countywide survey with folks from AARP, the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and UCLA’s Los Angeles Community Academic Partnership for Research in Aging. Presented in nine languages, the survey was designed to learn more about the needs and realities of older people; more than 14,000 respondents answered questions on a broad range of topics. Stakeholders, advocates and professionals who work with older adults reviewed the results and developed recommendations; 300 older adults helped prioritize them.

The result? The countywide Age-Friendly Action Plan for 2018 to 2021 promotes 34 recommendations on how to make the following sectors more age-friendly: employment and civic participation, housing, emergency preparedness, social participation and use of outdoor space, among others. The emphasis is on practical and innovative ideas that unite public and private leadership, resources and strategies.

During its three-year lifespan, the Action Plan encourages and directs organizers at all levels to take greater advantage of resources and connections. Since its kick-off, new activities and programs have been launched. Here are just a few:

Dementia Friends/L.A. Found

An estimated 147,140 Angelenos currently live with Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2030 that number could reach more than 290,000. Research shows that the number of Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders experiencing dementia will triple; among African Americans it will double.

In partnership with Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles, PALA launched Dementia Friends L.A., part of a worldwide campaign started in the United Kingdom to create dementia-friendly environments and encourage a deeper understanding of individuals with dementia. The public can attend in-person talks or watch informational videos that offer instruction on how to detect certain dementia symptoms, along with practical advice on interacting with afflicted loved ones. More details at: alzheimersla.org/los-angeles.

There’s also the new L.A. Found program, a spinoff of the county’s Bringing Our Loved Ones Home Task Force, which tackled the problem of wandering seniors with dementia. L.A. Found was implemented last year, providing families with a more direct connection for help with wandering elders who get lost. Individuals are fitted with a lightweight electronic wristband, called a Project Lifesaver. This radio-frequency tracking device allows the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to coordinate a countywide response when someone goes missing. Since its inception, two wandering individuals were successfully located within hours of the alert. “It’s incredible to see the effectiveness of this program,” says Diaz. He adds that the LAPD and local fire departments are also working together to respond to 911 calls and find wandering family members, sometimes even via helicopter. At the program kick-off last summer, more than 100 wristbands were handed out to caregivers. There is a $325 fee for the devices, although there are financial breaks for those with qualifying incomes. More details are at lafound.com.

New Freedom Taxicab Service Program/Volunteer Driver Mileage Reimbursement

Getting around L.A. County is a hassle at any age. For disabled seniors, it can be complex and frustrating. As of this year, the New Freedom Taxicab
Service Program offers eligible disabled seniors 60 years and older a monthly maximum of four free one-way trips covering a grand total of 40 miles. Rides must begin and end in L.A. County and can be arranged seven days a week; seniors can also request special wheelchair vans and/or ramps. Rides can be for medical appointments, shopping, banking, senior centers visits, volunteer sites and other reasons.

Still, some seniors (especially those who are more ill or frail) may feel more comfortable being driven by someone they know personally, such as a spouse, caregiver, neighbor or friend. The new Volunteer Driver Mileage Reimbursement program will financially reimburse these volunteers who drive a senior to needed destinations such as doctors’ offices and therapy centers as well as social outings. Seniors create a list of approved volunteers who can drive them and they receive mileage reimbursements for their approved trips (also within L.A. County) on a monthly basis, which they pass on to their drivers. The program has no limit on the number of monthly trips, but it caps out at a total of 250 miles a month, at a rate of 44 cents per mile ($110 maximum).

For more information, visit newfreedom.lacounty.gov or call (888) 863-7411.

Aging Mastery Program (AMP)

This free 10-week program offers core and elective classes that incorporate expert speakers, group discussions and resource materials. Each week features a different discussion topic related to health, finances and other concerns. Currently, the program is currently being offered at a select number of senior centers in the county, but more are being planned for the spring and summer. The participating center closest to Pasadena is the L.A. LGBT Center Anita May Rosenstein Campus at 1116 N. McCadden Pl. in Hollywood. Find out more at https://wdacs.lacounty.gov/amp/

Meanwhile, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted in February to explore the feasibility of creating an entire new department (working with? Los Angeles city? services) focused solely on serving older adults. This stand-alone county entity — which may be dubbed Seniors Advancing Gracefully Everywhere (SAGE), a moniker suggested by Supervisor Janice Hahn — could integrate services and provide an overarching strategy with perhaps a bigger focus on job training, employment and social services. Officials are researching the feasibility of such a standalone department and targeting what county programs and services could be included in that consolidation; a final report will be presented back to the board by year’s end.

No doubt, there will be many more chapters in local governments’ push for greater age-friendliness. Stay tuned.  

The bank of Mom and Dad

Like many comfortable parents of millennials, Jenny and Steven Lagos want to help their children get established as homeowners.

Both daughters, 37 and 35, are successful and live in San Francisco where astronomical home prices spike wildly in bidding wars. It is an expensive place to live, but neither daughter has plans to leave. “Once our grandchildren were born, we thought it would be so great if our kids could have a place to live [that they owned],” said Jenny Lagos, whose older daughter and husband have two young sons. “So we thought if they were willing to go in [together] on a duplex, they could afford it.”

So the retired couple secured a home equity line of credit on their San Diego house. They hoped to assist with the hardest home-buying stepping stone — the down payment. Their daughter and her husband, and their younger, single daughter, prequalified jointly for a mortgage in the mid-$900,000 range. The trio looked for a duplex, but right-priced duplexes were selling weeks later for up to $200,000 over the asking price. They are resigned to renting for now. Still, the Lagoses are keeping their home-equity line of credit, just in case the housing market takes a dive — even though Jenny Lagos acknowledged that’s unlikely. “It’s pretty laughable when you talk about the market going up and down in San Francisco,” she said.

More millennials (ages 23 to 38) are tapping their parents’ resources for help with a mortgage down payment because scraping up enough is an enormous challenge. Young adults have some unique financial disadvantages: They have lower incomes than baby boomers had as young adults, according to a Federal Reserve data analysis conducted by the nonprofit group Young Invincibles. Most of them also have skimpier assets, particularly those who are burdened by student loan debt. Indeed, just 30 percent of millennials are current homeowners, a historic low for the under-35 demographic, according to a recent Harvard University study.

Additionally, slow wage growth and a high cost of living makes squirreling away enough cash for a down payment next to impossible for many first-time homebuyers. Then there are the twin challenges of housing prices still rising year over year — though the pace has slowed — and higher mortgage interest rates that make buying a first home more expensive. Many millennials are waiting for the housing market to cool off before attempting to jump in.

“To put things in perspective, the median housing price in Pasadena is $800,000, but nationally the median housing price is $220,000, “ said Earl Jordan Yaokasin, CEO of Wealtharch Investment Services in Pasadena. “So Pasadena housing prices are about four times as much as the national average. But the income of millennials is not four times as much as the average national income. That is what is causing the affordability problem.” As a result, many millennials either have to borrow from their parents or have their parents cover the down payment outright, said Yaokasin, who is also a chartered financial analyst.

Home buyers typically need to put down 20 percent of the purchase price for conventional loans (more than 60 percent of buyers use a conventional loan) and pay closing costs of 2 to 5 percent of the home purchase price, said Yaokasin. A growing number of mortgage loan borrowers are making smaller down payments that range from 5 to 10 percent of a home purchase price; borrowers putting down less than 20 percent have to pay Primary Mortgage Insurance (or PMI), according to myhome.freddiemac.com, an information website exploring renting versus buying and the mortgage process. Millennial buyers need to factor in the additional costs of property insurance and property taxes when considering the entire cost, said Yoakasin.

But with high rents and payments for a car, insurance and gas, just saving for a 20 percent down payment on an $800,000 house — that would amount to $160,000 — is an incredibly difficult challenge. “Two-thirds of people I speak with who are millennials have debt and their saving habits are not great,” he said.

So many millennials turn to their parents for help. More than 26 percent of borrowers got help from a relative to make a down payment from September 2017 to 2018, up from 22 percent in 2011, according to the Federal Housing Administration’s 2018 annual report. The FHA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, insures lending institutions against riskier loans. First-time homebuyers with imperfect credit often secure FHA loans because they cannot qualify for standard loans that require a good credit history. Likewise, FHA homebuyers can put down as little as 3.5 percent of the home price, compared to conventional mortgage loans that require 20 percent. Riskier borrowers now make up about one-tenth of all home loans, according to the FHA.

Enter Mom and Dad. “Parents who want to help their adult children should really talk to an advisor before they do it,” said Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner at Wealth Resources Group in Westlake who specializes in guiding millennial clients. “You have to look at the whole situation, and there is no single, right decision for every situation,” added Frankle, who also counsels millennials in his creditpilgrim.com blog. “But the best way to do it is to have the children make payments immediately on the loan; the second is to defer payments until they get settled, maybe in 10 years, and the third is to make a gift, the worst alternative versus a loan.”

Unless parents are willing to gift it freely with absolutely no expectations, they should reconsider bankrolling the down payment, said Frankle, who is the father of three daughters, two of whom are millennials. If you are not clear about expectations, he notes, it could open the door to resentments and other family problems. .

Kathy Miles, a real estate agent for Keller Williams in Pasadena, has helped a number of millennials buy their first house in the past year. In her experience, young doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or tech workers did not tap their parents for a down payment — but they did move back in with their parents until they’d saved enough to pay for it themselves. “I have worked with six millennials in the last 12 months and about half needed help from their parents and half did not,” said Miles, 31, who owns a house with her husband and bought it without parental assistance. “Two needed help with the down payment and those parents also cosigned onto the loan. The third millennial assumed the house from her parents who had dementia. But all of my friends who purchased a house in their 20s did get help from their parents.”

Homebuyers who need help with a down payment have been viewed as riskier because they have less of their own hard-earned cash invested in the property. If home prices drop, jobs are lost or some other financial calamity hits, the thinking is that buyers assisted with a down payment are quicker to walk away because the loss is less painful. In contrast, some lenders and financial advisors think that getting assistance from parents or a relative makes the buyer feel a sense of moral duty to protect their family’s investment. The evidence is mixed. Loan tracking data from the FHA that followed loans in 2010–2011 found that 7.6 percent of loans involving family assistance with the down payment are not in default for 90 days or more. That is less than the 9.3 percent of buyers who got down-payment help from an unrelated entity or the government. Only 5.2 percent of buyers who received no help with a down payment were delinquent on their FHA loans.

The big picture? It’s a good idea for parents to help their millennial kids — assuming they can afford to and the kids are responsible, said Frankle. But it is also a good idea to check in with a financial advisor before doing so. “It is better than waiting to die to give it to them, but you have to be sure that it does not create the wrong value,” he said. “From a relationship and financial basis, you are better off to make it a loan, but if that is not viable, then do it, let go and forget about it.” 

Cookie Fever

So far, in my ongoing attempt to follow and observe the National Day Calendar, I have concluded that March is a strange and cruel month. Directly following Awkward Moments Day (March 18) is National Let’s Laugh Day (March 19). Everything You Do is Right Day comes after we must suffer through Everything You Do Is Wrong Day (March 15 and 16). There is the bad-luck-taunting Open Your Umbrella Indoors Day (March 13), and the dismissive Get Over It Day (March 9). Food holidays are not much better. Cheese Doodle Day (March 5), Taters Day (not potatoes, but “taters” — March 31), Cold Cuts Day (March 3) and Chip ’n’ Dip Day (March 23). This is not the month to focus on healthy eating. At least Corned Beef and Cabbage Day coincides with Saint Patrick’s Day.

The one day I did get excited about, though, is March 12, Girl Scout Day. I assume it is timed to coincide with the annual cookie sales. I had never heard of it but will gladly celebrate. It is not the birthday of our founder, Juliette Gordon Lowe (which every good scout knows is on Halloween), but rather the day in 1912 of the first organized troop meeting, of 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia.

I have a long and nostalgic history with the Girl Scouts. I followed the example of my mother, who cherished her memories as a scout. As was the case with her, all my closest friends were scouts with me. My leader was my friend Kathy’s mom, and it was through her that I learned to love camping. She taught us to light a fire with a spindle and bow, identify poison oak and make tea out of manzanita bark and a salad out of dandelion greens. Sure, we had s’mores; but more important, we learned to make doughboys — ready-to-bake biscuit dough on a stick, browned over the fire, then rolled in melted butter and cinnamon sugar. We went backpacking and horseback riding, learned archery and kayaking and discovered that sliding down a dirt hillside is easier on your jeans if you ride on cardboard.   

We were a diverse group — African-American, Jewish, Asian, Arab, Latina  — and from elementary school to junior high we were thick as thieves. If not for scouts I would probably never have gotten to know them. And although by high school our interests had changed (hello, boys!), we all remained friendly. I’m still in touch with some of them, and we all share great memories of that time. So you bet I signed up my girls when they were little, and I jumped at the chance to be a leader. But it wasn’t the same for them. I tried getting them jazzed about the outdoors, but the camping trips we took were never as miraculous as the ones I remembered from my childhood. It was always too hot, or too cold, or too dirty, or too windy. The thrill of fireside skits, lanyards and tie-dyed T-shirts wore off for them fast. I like to blame the age of the Internet, but in reality I just wasn’t as good at selling these activities as my leader had been. 

The one thing they did love, though, was selling cookies. Cookie time was their favorite time of year. They loved setting up tables in front of stores. If we were lucky, we would get the coveted Friday and Saturday night Blockbuster Video spot, which was the most profitable cookie-sales spot in town. Rain or shine, my troop was great at pressure sales. They made up cookie songs and cheers to entertain the shoppers and danced in cookie costumes, like a giant Thin Mint mascot. (This was a favorite costume, which they would fight over routinely.) I believe they gained some skills over the years, like rising above rude people, avoiding creepy ones and working together as a team to meet financial goals. 

And they definitely had financial goals, though it was not to secure funds for our troop activities. They were all about the “incentive prizes.” Good sales could get you dolls, T-shirts, key chains, beach towels, backpacks (I still have many of these items floating around my house) and the coveted trip to Disneyland, which required selling at least 500 boxes (yeah, we did that). Some of the girls in my troop were ambitious, but mostly they were good at talking their parents into selling at the office. My husband was hands-down the best seller in my troop. 

The cookie sales began in 1917 as a way to finance troop activities, and it continues to be thus. In 1922 American Girl magazine published a simple sugar-cookie recipe for Girl Scouts to bake at home and sell to neighbors. By the 1930s demand was high, and the girls had trouble keeping up with the demand, resulting in the first commercially baked cookies in 1934. Due to food rationing during World War I, the girls raised money by selling calendars. When my mother was a scout in the 1950s there were three flavors (shortbread, chocolate mint and peanut butter), and boxes sold for a quarter. When my girls were selling in the 2000s, there were nine flavors that sold for $4 a box (customers were outraged). Today there are 12 varieties (availability depends on where you live), including gluten-free and non-GMO varieties, and they sell for $5 to $6. If you don’t have any girls in your area, you can get them online now through the official Girl Scout website (or on Amazon, for a substantial markup).

Scouting is not perfect, nor is the cookie sale. And while I have many problems with it (too much packaging, too much focus on prizes, more money spent on the sale than on the girls), I still think the program upholds Juliette Gordon Lowe’s vision — empowering little girls. She started the program before the 19th Amendment — before girls could feasibly wear pants. Sure, girls today are less likely to go camping. Then again, they are more likely to go to robotics camp, and I think Juliette would be fine with that. ||||

Vintage visions re-created

When 10-year-old Bobby Green arrived in Los Angeles from his native Oklahoma, he fell instantly in awestruck love with the city he describes as “a giant movie set.” He recalls thinking the palm trees were fake and admiring the Hollywood sign aglow at night; he especially loved visiting the iconic Tail O’ the Pup hot-dog stand, musing all the while that so much of the city was “built to entertain, be wacky and crazy.”

Now 48, the Altadena resident is the cofounder and lead designer of the 1933 Group, a prominent L.A. hospitality company that has created more than a dozen nightlife hotspots around town since its inception in 1999. Over the years, Green and his partners, Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman, have left their mark on such popular watering holes as the barrel-shaped Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Bigfoot Lodge in Los Feliz (their first establishment) and Highland Park’s La Cuevita and Highland Park Bowl. Now the designers are shifting their focus toward restoring classic properties like L.A.’s Formosa Café and the Tail O’ the Pup to their former glory.

“I was going to go to [Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design] to study environmental design in the late ’80s, but I was given the opportunity to take over a coffeehouse I was working at,” says Green, who shares his Altadena home with his fiancé. “We took over the tiny coffeehouse and art gallery called Cacao, in West Hollywood, and that became my college because I learned how to grow a small business.

“It’s how I learned the hospitality business, and I came up with the concept of Bigfoot Lodge because I wanted to do something in L.A. that didn’t exist,” he continues. “It was kind of like a movie set that takes people away from their daily lives, and I figured a log cabin motif was the perfect juxtaposition to the postmodern city we live in.”

The next step for Green was finding the right investors for his inventive concepts. To that end, he created a concept book detailing his ideas, which a mutual friend passed along to the men who became his partners. The trio opened the Lodge in 1999, meeting instant success. It became such a hip spot that Drew Carey sang karaoke there with fellow cast members of his former improv comedy TV series, Whose Line Is It Anyway? It even inspired the 2008 Jim Carrey movie Yes Man to set a scene in a full-size replica of the Atwater Village bar.

While his partners are also occupied running their Komarov clothing brand, carried in Nordstrom stores nationwide, Green devotes himself to all kinds of vintage Americana. He collects and rides classic hot rods and motorcycles, owns a specialty motorcycle and collectibles store called Old Crowe Speed Shop in Burbank and scours the countryside for one-of-a-kind vintage pieces he can restore or repurpose for his home or the various bars operated by the 1933 Group.

“The business is constantly evolving,” says Green, the son of a successful artist who specialized in working with stained glass from abandoned churches. “There are always new trends and fashions, and obviously the whole craft cocktail movement, so you have to keep up with the times but also stay true to yourself in the business — what you do and who you are. One thing is how strong our identity is through everything we’ve done. A few years ago we went from creating vintage-style places that could have existed back in the day to restoring vintage places that existed. It was a graduation in that, rather than building sets that looked like old places, we went to saving old places. That was more gratifying to us and more rewarding to the city we’re in.”

The 1933 Group’s headquarters is located in a former church in Pasadena. He found the space when the Burbank facility the company occupied for 14 years was due to be demolished. The new headquarters would be used not only for work, but also to store some of his vintage cars. “I came across this little church that was for sale because the preacher had died and his kids didn’t want to continue,” says Green. “It was on the market for quite a while, and luckily, because I am a creative businessperson, I love repurposing things like a church as a nightclub or a home.

“I’ve always loved anything interesting like that. It has great energy, better than a mortuary for sure,” he says with a laugh. “I turned it into my private space, where I get my work done and keep my favorite cars. When I came to L.A. in 1980, you still had a lot of great ’40s and ’50s cars on the road here. That added to the whole set-like atmosphere of L.A.”

Aside from his design work with the 1933 Group, Green’s proudest achievement has been producing and promoting The Race of Gentlemen, which he describes as an annual “automotive carnival” on Pismo Beach that featured a drag race; the event had a four-year run before ending last year.

His favorite architectural design project is the Highland Park Bowl, housed in a structure originally built in 1927. The Prohibition-era bowling alley earned the 1933 Group an award from the Highland Park Heritage Trust for its massive restoration after decades as the decrepit punk-music venue Mr. T’s Bowl. “Mr. T’s was a very dark, ugly-feeling space. You had no idea there was this beautiful world hidden behind dropped ceilings, curtains and walls,” says Green. “You have no idea how rewarding it is to show how beautiful it was, and as popular as it was in 1927. That’s one of the hardest things to do — dream of reopening old things, but finding it doesn’t always work because our lifestyles have changed. Sometimes they fail because of that, but fortunately the bowling alley concept continues to live on and thrive.”

The Formosa Café is approaching its big relaunch this spring, with the Tail o’ the Pup claiming Green’s attention after that. He acquired the famous stand shaped like a giant fiberglass hot dog from the Van Nuys–based Valley Relics Museum, where it had been in storage since shortly after its 2005 demise. Owning one of the iconic buildings he first fell in love with on arriving here is exciting, Green says, but the restoration will be hard work. Its future location is still to be decided.

“It won’t be easy. Nothing’s easy!” he says with a smile. “The dog has to be connected to a building. It was connected to a small building, and we hope to incorporate a larger outside patio and beer garden. It’ll be just as difficult as all of them are, and will likely be a year-and-a-half before it’s functional — planning, architecture and permitting before you can start construction.

“But that’s okay. I’ve always had the goal to create something that doesn’t exist and takes people out of their daily life. They crave a day of escapism.” 


Visit 1933group.com.

WHAT YOU GET FOR…

After soaring to record heights last year — beyond even the Great Recession peak — the metro Los Angeles housing market began cooling off last summer, according
  to the real-estate database website Zillow. But Pasadena buyers shouldn’t get too excited, because the area is quite desirable and prices are still hefty. Zillow reports that the city’s median home price is $879,000, still up 4.7 percent over the same period last year.

But there is good news for prospective homeowners — there’s simply more out there. Around the country, inventory increased 3 percent over last year, the first such rise since 2014. And buyers willing to add some sweat equity to their mortgage package might find some tasty deals to be had.

What you get for…

$500,000

HOW MUCH:  $500,000

WHERE:  80 N. Raymond, #112, Pasadena

WHAT YOU GET:  Studio with one bath

SIZE:  545 square feet

PRICE PER SQUARE FOOT:  $917

This corner studio may be cozy, but it obeys the first law of real estate: Location, location, location. It puts you in busy Old Pasadena, mere steps from the Levitt Pavilion of Performing Arts, the Metro Gold Line, Armory Center for the Arts and a flurry of cool shops, bars and restaurants. Indeed, this 1996 condo complex has been part of the downtown revival bringing buyers back from the suburbs, closer to numerous amenities. Even better, the studio has been completely remodeled, and its modest size is enhanced by huge windows on two sides, which flood the space with light. The one-bath unit has stackable laundry machines, granite counters, central air, a balcony, recessed lighting and one parking space (you’ll need it). The monthly $297 homeowners’ association dues covers earthquake insurance, security, hot water and more. A pied-à-terre, anyone?


CONTACT: Luka Mihovilovic, United Real Estate Los Angeles, (626) 616-0457


Under $1 million

HOW MUCH:  $949,000

WHERE:  4831 Mt. Royal Dr., Eagle Rock

WHAT YOU GET:  Three beds, two baths

SIZE:  1,340 square feet

PRICE PER SQUARE FOOT:  $708

This Spanish Mission-style home may need some help with curb appeal, but it has something else to compensate: spectacular views and light through an entire wall of windows overlooking the Griffith Observatory and city lights from Glendale to Century City. Built in 1974, the home was recently renovated, with new bathrooms, kitchen with quartz countertops, recessed lighting and flooring. There’s also a sunset-friendly balcony that stretches from a bedroom through the living room, central air, a two-car garage off the kitchen and a sizable 16,950-square-foot lot, which includes an adjacent lot, so no one can build on it and block your view.


CONTACT: Suzi Dunkel-Soto, Keller Williams Realty/Arcadia, (626) 386-7888


UNDER $3 MILLION

HOW MUCH:  $2,395,000

WHERE:  5026 Castle Rd., La Cañada Flintridge

WHAT YOU GET:  Three beds, 2.75 baths

SIZE:  3,362 square feet

PRICE PER SQUARE FOOT:  $712

This Country French Revival estate was completed in 1932 for public-school teacher Francis Brown McCollum and his French-born second wife, Yvonne, to make her feel at home. Yvonne was also a public-school teacher, but the $3,000 building cost (under $300,000 in current dollars) was within their means. The first things that strike you are the mature fruit trees and other landscaping on the nearly one-acre plot and the generous use of stone throughout the home. There are several private patios (on the roof, under a trellis), a formal living room with views of the pool, a formal dining room with a fireplace and a family room with a balcony overlooking the front gardens, a stone fireplace and a built-in desk. The lower level has a guest room with a separate entrance. Other perks: a wraparound driveway and an attached two-car garage.


CONTACT: Heather Scherbert, Coldwell Banker/La Cañada Flintridge,
(818) 903-3393


THE SKY’S THE LIMIT

HOW MUCH:  $16.8 million

WHERE:  1161 Virginia Rd., San Marino

WHAT YOU GET:  seven bedrooms, seven baths

SIZE:  9,912 square feet

PRICE PER SQUARE FOOT:  $1,695

This 1913 Italian Palladian Villa has a stellar pedigree, its design by Robert D. Farquhar, whose architectural projects included the Pentagon and The California Club in downtown L.A. The two-acre-plus estate lies behind a security gate and boasts 16-foot ceilings, a marble foyer, hand-carved marble fireplace mantels, an oval, walnut-paneled library, solarium, elevator and stately living and dining rooms. A circular staircase connects to the second-floor children’s playroom and six bedrooms plus the master suite. The spacious grounds include a pool and spa, a fruit orchard, a north-south tennis court,  a reflecting pond and guest apartment


CONTACT: Yennis Wong, Berkshire Hathaway, (626) 440-5100

When the Smoke Clears

Last year California endured the deadliest fire season ever, with 1.9 million
acres consumed by 8,527 fires. Now insurance companies are witnessing
  an unprecedented number of claims and astronomical payouts. Indeed, last December, one small Northern California company, Merced Property & Causality Co., went bankrupt in the face of some $64 million in claims from the Camp Fire, the state’s single deadliest fire, which devastated the small town of Paradise. As a result, the state’s insurance industry is changing, and California homeowners — even those unaffected by the fires -– should pay attention to what could be coming down the road.

To date, more than $11.4 billion in insured losses have been reported from last November’s Camp and  Woolsey fires (the latter torched 97,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties), according to the California Department of Insurance. The number represents 13,000 insured homes and businesses whose owners lodged more than 46,000 claims, as reported by insurers.

According to U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasters, almost half of California has an elevated risk for fires, and there are 15.5 million people living in critical areas — including parts of Los Angeles. “Change is on the horizon,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a research analyst with Value Penguin, an analytic research company that tracks the insurance industry. “With the record damage last year, we are already seeing major insurers talking about applying to the Department of Insurance to raise rates. They need their customers to pay higher rates so they, in turn, can pay out the claims.” How much the increase would be depends on many factors, but experts say homeowners can expect to see policy changes in 18 months to three years from now.

Also, insurance companies will likely not renew policyholders considered too high a risk and longtime loyal customers may find themselves unceremoniously dropped. As ruthless as that sounds, insurers “have the right to do that,” says Fitzpatrick. “They can cancel you in 30 days if they [reinspect a property and] see something they don’t like, or even if they don’t want to be in that area anymore,” says Paul Diaz, an independent insurance agent based in Eagle Rock. “That goes for all areas that have homes up against the hills and mountains — La Caňada, La Crescenta, Altadena, Monrovia, Glendora, Sierra Madre. Homeowners in those areas could have their policies dropped and they may have a tough time finding another one.”

The definition of a high-fire-risk area is shifting, and homeowners who previously were in the low-risk category may get a rude awakening, thanks to sophisticated modeling programs — and maybe their neighbors. Using geo-mapping data and satellite imagery, these high-tech wildfire models that predict losses and assess risks consider the home’s natural features, the density of surrounding vegetation, access roads and historical wind patterns. But this evaluator model “also looks beyond the individual home to a designated perimeter around the home that’s maybe 250 yards, a quarter of a mile or greater,” says Joel Laucher, a special consultant at the California Department of Insurance. “People are used to insurers just looking at their own home, but that’s changing,” says Laucher,  adding that even if homeowners do everything they can to reduce risks, they still may get higher premiums or a cancellation because of their neighbors’ houses and/or the surrounding community. The 2018 fires taught insurers that, according to Laucher, “mitigating fire risk is a community effort.”

In the past, insurance carriers lumped homeowners together in zip codes and city boundaries. Now, insurers realize that risk can change dramatically within those distinct areas; risks are being pinpointed today on a near-granular level. Think about your zip code, says Laucher. “Some areas are more of a flatland, others are hilly. Are fire trucks going to have it easy to get to the house? What happens if that big tree falls over and blocks access? These are questions being asked.”

With all these changes in the insurance industry, what can — and should — homeowners do? Just as temblors prompt homeowners to reassess their earthquake preparedness, wildfires should nudge people “to inspect their insurance policies and update if necessary,” says Mel Cohen, an independent insurance agent in Pasadena in business since the 1970s. “You as a homeowner need to know what the rebuilding costs will be to adequately replace your home. So many people think, ‘Oh, I’m covered,’ but maybe that policy is 15 years old and what they have is not enough to cover rebuilding costs in this current climate.”

Estimated replacement costs have been moving upward, but only recently have they skyrocketed. “In 1977, we used $32 per square foot as the baseline number to rebuild a like-kind quality structure,” says Cohen. “But as of the Station Fire in 2016, that number went up to $200 per square foot. And now with these last fires, we think that number should be about $300 per square foot to cover construction costs.” And Cohen’s estimations may be on the low side; Laucher has heard of locations with estimates of $700 or $800 per square foot. Homeowners who want a second opinion can hire a professional appraiser — just make sure your insurer will accept that estimate. Check to see that your policy adequately covers personal property inside the house; expensive jewelry, artwork, antiques may need additional coverage. Finally, make sure you have coverage for living expenses if your home needs to be rebuilt.

If Your Policy Gets Dropped

Homeowners who receive a cancellation notice will have 45 days to find replacement coverage. But don’t worry yet; California is known as a competitive market when it comes to insurance. “Just because one insurer rejects you, doesn’t mean they all will,” says Fitzpatrick. Check out the listing of statewide insurance carriers on the California Department of Insurance website (insurance.ca.gov), which also has numerous interactive tools to help you navigate the process. Fitzpatrick also suggests reaching out to independent agents who represent a variety of carriers.

Shopping around could be advisable for everyone, not just those who have been dropped. “There can be benefits to being a loyal customer, but sometimes a new policy may be cheaper,” says Fitzpatrick. “Be sure you’re taking advantage of all the available discounts such as smart devices, damage mitigation, etc. Check and see if you quality for a premium discount, too.”

If all fails, the California Fair Plan offers basic private coverage to homeowners; supplemental policies to provide liability protection can also be purchased to wrap around bare-bones coverage. Remember, you have an ally in the California Department of Insurance, which can provide assistance and resources.

Similar turbulence around insurance rates and coverage is being played out in other parts of the country facing their own natural disasters. “So much of insurer analysis, the risks vs. the payouts, is dependent on local vulnerabilities,” says Fitzpatrick. “You see the same thing happening in hurricane-vulnerable areas of the East Coast, for example. Natural disasters are a reality we are all facing these days.”


Turtle Whacks

The 5:30 a.m. knock on the door on Nov. 9, 2018, wakened Malibu residents Susan Tellem and husband Marshall Thompson abruptly. “Get out, pack up and get out,” their neighbor told them. “The fire is almost here.”

The couple raced out of their 1978 home and scoured their 1.5-acre property to pack up as many sulcatas, box turtles and Russian tortoises as they could. In addition to day jobs, the couple operates the American Tortoise Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues and adopts out turtles and tortoises worldwide (tortoise.com). Started in 1990, the nonprofit has helped find suitable homes for more than 4,000 shelled critters and care for the unadoptable ones.

As fate would have it, the couple had not unpacked their personal go-bags from a previous evacuation only a few weeks prior. Wrangling the animals proved difficult; Tellem and Thompson gathered up about half of their charges, about 50 turtles and tortoises from the sanctuary and hospital treatment building. They filled the turtle pond, placed all the captured animals (including three cats) into their two cars and sped off.

After driving to Zuma Beach and sleeping with their menagerie in their cars that night, the couple learned their house and sanctuary — along with 15 other homes on their street — did not make it. “We were prepared for the loss when we went back,” she says. “But it was still very hard to see everything gone.” Amazingly, though, almost all the critters left behind — turtles, tortoises and two roosters — survived.

On paper, Tellem and Thompson were fire-ready; brush was amply cut back from their home and other structures. They used fire-resistant cement-board siding and fireproof paint on their house, deck and sanctuary housing. “The fire department loved us because we were on top of it all,” says Tellem. None of that mattered, however, against 3,000-degree heat that melted cages and plastic tubs.

The couple is in the process of rebuilding; the sanctuary is back in working order with turtles and tortoises wandering once again in their familiar habitat. A recent fundraiser is helping to support the onsite hospital which was completely destroyed. The pond has been covered with chain link to keep away raccoons; the previous electric fence burnt and there is currently no electricity.

The rescue operation has good insurance through AARP, and Tellem says she’s learned so much already about the insurance process through this whole ordeal. Her advice to homeowners everywhere: Look at your policy every year and update it. Get the lowest deductible limits that you can afford. If possible, ask someone to look at your property and provide a second opinion if you have any doubts about what level of coverage you should have. Make sure you have a detailed inventory of your home’s assets in writing or on video. “Document every phone call and email contact you have with your insurer,” she says. “Record date, the time, who you spoke to and what you talked about. It’s critical to keep good records.”

The couple is also considering installing other mitigation equipment, including an outdoor sprinkler system with heat sensors that release flame retardants in the event of a wildfire.

Today, Tellem and Thompson are renting a house about 10 minutes from their property. When Tellem goes to feed and water the critters, she passes by charred rubble where a statue of St. Francis stood for many years. The statue was there after the fire, and Tellem credits the saint for watching over the turtles the couple could not find the morning they evacuated. “St. Francis protected the animals we couldn’t catch,” she says.

Sadly, that property, like so many other homeowners in the fire-ravaged landscape, has recently been targeted by thieves. “We have had to put locks on everything, but I never imagined that someone would steal St. Francis,” Tellem says about a final gut-wrenching loss from this fire. “That truly breaks my heart.”

          B.R.